INDIANAPOLIS – The Steelers are hoping that Johnny Manziel aces the interview process here, that Blake Bortles puts on a show when he throws for the assembled league glitterati, that Teddy Bridgewater passes the "eye test." The Steelers are hoping all three of these guys use this Combine to enhance their draft status somehow, and maybe they say a little prayer that A.J. McCarron and/or Derek Carr light a spark that turns into a blazing love affair with some team come May 8.
The Steelers want as many quarterbacks as possible to be among the first 14 selections in the first round of the 2014 draft for selfish reasons. As a team not in that market, the Steelers' chances of using their No. 1 choice on a dynamic player at one of their positions of need increases with each quarterback chosen.
Mike Mayock of NFL Network prioritizes the quarterbacks as follows: Bridgewater, Manziel, Bortles, Carr, and McCarron. Those guys appear on just about everybody's top-five list, but the issue for the Steelers is when, not in what order.
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle is certain the Texans will use the first overall pick on a quarterback, primarily because the team's roster is solid everywhere but there. Bill O'Brien is the Texans' recently hired coach, and because he once was an offensive coordinator in New England he's expected to have some detailed specifications on what kind of quarterback he wants to operate his system.
Other teams with a need for a quarterback that are picking ahead of the Steelers in the first round include Jacksonville with the third choice, Cleveland with the fourth, Oakland with the fifth, Minnesota with the eighth, and Tennessee with the 11th, unless Coach Ken Whisenhunt was serious when he said he was looking forward to working with Jake Locker.
As for those five prospects, it will be Bridgewater, Manziel, and Bortles who are the best bets to be drafted before the Steelers' turn comes at No. 15.
Bridgewater is perceived to be a football-smart, rhythm-passer, who compensates for his lack of difference-making arm strength with intangibles and intelligence. The concern with him, as is one of the concerns with Manziel, is whether Bridgewater's smallish frame is one capable of withstanding the punishment NFL defenses find a way to dish out to quarterbacks. In Bridgewater's favor, he weighed in here at 214 pounds, up nine from his in-season playing weight at Louisville of 205.
Bortles has the lowest Q-rating of the three, having played at Central Florida and only having done that with distinction for a single season. Maybe because of that, Bortles is the only one of the top three who took part in the Combine's passing drills. Because the throwers are working with unfamiliar receivers, the elite prospects often defer the passing workout to their pro days.
"But I want to compete," Bortles said of his decision to throw here. "That's kind of who I am, that's what I want to do. I look forward to doing everything here. That's kind of the way I was brought up and who I am."
It's a common practice to pigeon-hole the players at a particular position in a particular draft, and so it has come to be that Bortles is known as the quarterback who will need the most seasoning until he's ready to play. That was the same label stuck on Ben Roethlisberger prior to the 2004 draft, and he was 13-0 as a rookie and a Super Bowl champion after his second season. Just saying.
"I believe that I can compete with any guy here, and that's why I'm doing everything I'm doing," said Bortles. "Why wait until your pro day, when you have an opportunity to make your first impression here in Indianapolis. There's no doubt I need coaching, I need help. I think everybody in the game does. One-hundred percent, I need coaching, and I'm going to work my butt off to do everything I can to be the best that I can be to help a team be the best it can be."
Manziel arrived for this Combine with his Johnny Football reputation being both an asset and a hindrance. Those who saw Johnny Football as the quarterback who tortured SEC defenses for two years with an improvisational playmaking ability that was part Fran Tarkenton and part Doug Flutie had Manziel as the top prospect in the group. Then there's the other Johnny Football, the 21-year-old who sure seemed to turn up on social media a lot for his off-the-field activities.
"I'm a guy from a small town, Kerrville, Texas, 20,000 people, really just still a small-town kid," said Manziel. "Sometimes you get caught up in certain things, but at the same time I'm continuing to learn and continuing to adapt to everything that's going on in my life. I'm not saying it's always easy, but continuing to be who I've always been is a big thing for me."
As for the scrutiny that has cast a tabloid-tint on his life to some degree already, Manziel said, "I'm able to handle it and able to really adapt to it. It's not something that gets to me all that much, and now being in San Diego I've tried to really hone in and focus on what I need to be doing to get ready for the Combine, get ready for pro day and really from there moving on to being a professional and trying to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
"I believe whenever I decided to make this decision to turn professional it was a time to really put my college years in the past. This is a job now. There's guys' families, coaches' families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line."
NFL Network's Mike Mayock sees Bridgewater as "the most ready to play NFL-style quarterback in this draft.
"People think (Bortles) has got the biggest arm. I'm not sure if he does or not, but I also think he's the least developed of the three," said Mayock.
As for Manziel, Mayock said, "The first tape I put in was (the Sept. 14 game against) Alabama, and I put the tape down about two hours later and I said, 'Wow. That was awesome.' It was really fun to watch. The kid makes throws. He allows his other players to make plays. I eventually got to the LSU and Missouri tapes, neither of which were really good tapes. Both of which the common denominator for me was I felt like he got frustrated in the pocket. … The more he was in the pocket, the more frustrated he got. He started to lose his accuracy. He started trying to escape the pocket way before he needed to and I feel like he doesn't like being confined. He likes those open spaces."
The Steelers can sit back and take in the whole process that began with the Combine and will continue through the pro days and pre-draft visits, and keep their fingers crossed that all three are top-10 picks. Because if they are, maybe a team panics and reaches for McCarron or Carr before No. 15.